Updated Feb. 16.
By Gretchen Schuldt
A bill that would block incarcerated people from being prioritized for the coronavirus vaccine was approved by the State Senate Tuesday.
Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), a sponsor of the bill, said in earlier testimony that the bill it "aims to prevent a coming mistake by the Evers' administration to prioritize Wisconsin's prison inmates over law abiding essential workers and others in receiving a COVID-19 vaccine."
The proposal from a state advisory committee to prioritize inmates would mean a "healthy 30-year-old three-time murderer would be entitled to receive a vaccine before other at-risk individuals," Wanggaard said. "A 25-year-old who raped a 60-year-old asthmatic cancer survivor would be entitled to receive the vaccine before his victim. This is not only unwise, it is unconscionable."
Prisons are recognized as breeding grounds for pandemics due to the poor health of many inmates and the crowded conditions. Incarcerated people face increased risk of contracting the disease, as do corrections workers and those they come in contact with both inside and outside the prison walls.
Registering against the bill were the ACLU of Wisconsin, Kids Forward, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the Wisconsin Council of Churches, and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. No organization registered in favor of the bill.
"Around the country, COVID-19 has spread at unparalleled rates inside jails and prisons," the ACLU said in a statement. "Outbreaks inside prisons affect the communities these prisons are part of, and hospital capacity in rural areas that prisons are mostly in, is very limited."
"Senate Bill 8 fails to respect the dignity inherent in every incarcerated person and the mercy that must be afforded to all," Kim Vercauteren, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, said in written testimony.
"Individuals in the DOC's care have already been processed by the criminal justice system and sentenced. Failure by corrections authorities to properly mitigate a threat of illness or death through communicable infection is not an allowable additional penalty under the law," she said.
Wanggaard said he did not want to push inmates to the end of the vaccination line, but did not want to give them special priority, either.
Incarcerated people already are "quarantined," he said.
"They are not in, and are not exposed to, the general public," he said. "The only way they could be infected is if it is brought into the prison. Since prison guards and personnel are in line to be vaccinated now, the risk of infection will be greatly reduced in a short number of weeks."
In addition, he said, "over 10,000 inmates, more than half of our entire prison population, have caught COVID. That means that over half of our prison inmates already have the antibodies against COVID. Many others may have the antibodies because of their exposure, and did not become sick. In essence, people who already have immunity would be getting the vaccine, while others who do not have immunity will have to wait."
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